Language No Bar

Among the many advantages English enjoys over other languages in India is its democratic quality. This might sound a strange description for a language that is often castigated for its association with power. However, when Ambedkar asked the Dalits to learn English what he was demanding was not merely access to a language of privilege but also the adoption of a language that had no ascriptive base in the Indian social scene.

Anybody can write in English, from any part, of any background, unfettered by the power of communities and hierarchies. In Hindi or Urdu, on the other hand, there are groups of arbiters who can decide what is acceptable as literature, criticism or analysis; before reaching the general public a piece of writing has to be affirmed by these custodians. English writings, on the other hand, appeal directly to a universal Indian reader, without any mediation. That is its strength as well as its limitation.

While the general usage of English in India is vast and indiscriminate, literary English is still a select commodity, controlled by a loose clique of publishers and reviewers.

What it woefully lacks is a literary community, a group of serious readers who read for the pleasure of reading and write and live for books without the perks it bestows on them in the commercial world of books.

It is the only literary scene in the country where one would be hard put to find serious writers who are neither famous nor rich but who live for literary delights. Hindi and Urdu can boast of hundreds of literary periodicals whose readers and writers do not often get the status of ‘writers’ in the media but who devote years of labour and love to the pursuit of words. is a recently launched literary portal which aims to offset exactly that lacuna. A literary website which aims to further the love of reading and reading for love, I am thrilled about its birth, not least because I know its editor to be somebody who has taken a strong stand against the literary mafia in the past.

From Pamuk to Vikas Swarup, from Rilke to Roland Barthes and from Coomaraswamy to Agha Shahid Ali, wants to reconnect us to that tradition which is under severe assault from the global writer and global reader. That it does not disdain literary news and events — the Frankfurt Festival, Booker award, literary diplomat — is also equally welcome.

The reason I emphasise the importance of a literary journal in English is that since the demise of Civil Lines there has been nothing in English that can make space for the new voice.

Younger, emerging writers cannot automatically turn into best-selling ones, and if they only write books, which will only get published if they have best-selling potential then we are in a situation where literary sales might kill the golden goose called literature.

This is even more crucial at a time when mainstream magazines have no space left for literature. An Illustrated Weekly or a Hindu Literary Review were arenas where younger voices could find their feet, even if they were not strictly literary periodicals like the Urdu Shabkhoon or the Hindi Hans.

The editor Manish Chand writes in his introduction, Indiawrites is an e-magazine which has been designed to promote the culture of reading, writing and creative thinking.

I don’t think the culture of reading has been depleted in any serious way, thanks to the internet many of us now read more than we once did, but the pleasure of reading is no longer what it was simply because the idea of literature is no longer as sure of itself as it was, say, 20 years ago.

It was possible, until 1980, let’s say, for us to name the five best Urdu or Hindi poets and for them to name a few Bangla or Malayali poets. The literary scene has got so dispersed, nationally and internationally, since then and the writer has been so celebrity-ised that it is not possible today to simply write.

What we are dealing with is a shift from literary events to literature as an event and it has come about in part at least because the literary communities in our languages bhashas have relinquished their seriousness in the face of the multiple assaults. It is not enough today to write a groundbreaking Nazm or Ghazal or story because it is not such a significant achievement, even within the specific community. By exhorting its readers to write and in time, hopefully, by forcing the writers to read what is written about them would be able to inculcate a sense of community.

This is something that the blog world is doing already but without the rigorousness, the khoon-e jigar which is the sine qua non of the literary word. It is as Rushdie says in these pages, “I can’t go on, says Beckett’s Unnamable. I will go on. A writer’s injuries are his strengths, and from his wounds will flow his sweetest, most startling dreams.”

Let the pen drip some blood then.

(Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi-based freelance writer and performer. He is also associated with Sarai, a programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.)

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